Quo Vadis Belarusians? – Belarus Civil Society Digest
The snow storm “Xavier” did not discourage Belarusian civil society from new projects and initiatives.
BISS recently discussed migration and Liberal Club “diagnosed” Belarus at roundtables in Minsk. The DisRight Office launched a new phase of an accessibility campaign. The Festival of Central European literature Shengenka opened in Minsk. Gomel activists campaign want to preserve historical wooden buildings.
The government asked business to form partnerships. Due to Constitution Day, Belarusians had the opportunity to query the Chairperson of the Constitutional Court.
Civil Society Activities
BISS roundtable on migration. On 14 March, in Minsk, the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS) held a roundtable Quo vadis, Belarusians? The Impact of Migration on the Economy and Society. The event presented some results of a recent national survey on migration, as well as a study on migration, published by the Consortium for Applied Research on International Migration CARIM-East. The event brought together experts on migration topics from government bodies, independent research institutes and international organisations.
Human rights defenders put new questions. The first anniversary of the execution of Uladzislau Kavaliou and Dzmitry Kanavalau, sentenced to death on charges of terrorism, is being marked in March. During a press conference held in Minsk on 13 March, the mother of one of the executed, Liubou Kavaliova and human rights defenders declared that they start a series of actions in order to get the information about the place of Vlad Kovalev’s burial and issuing his body.
From Accessibility to Equality. Office for the Rights of People with Disabilities is launching a new phase of the information campaign Accessibility under the slogan "From Accessibility to Equality" aimed to visualise and expand understanding of accessibility. The Office has produced four video-clips, where people with disabilities tell their real stories. The Office has also announced a competition for the best graphic "Accessible to the disabled."
Roundtable of liberals. On 15 March, in Minsk, the Liberal Club held a roundtable, aimed at gathering those who are in Belarus to declare their commitment to liberalism and to give them an opportunity to explain what kind of ideals they actually defending. The round table was attended by Yaroslav Romanchuk, Mises Center, Oleg Gaidukevich, the Liberal Democratic Party, Yauheni Preiherman, Liberal Club, etc.
Marketplace in Hrodna. On 26 March, in Hrodna the Capacity Development Marketplace is to hold an Open House day for CSOs and providers from the Grodno and Brest regions. The event is a continuation of the first national Capacity Development Fair, held in Minsk in October 2012, and is designed to present the regional market of organisational development’s services for local nonprofits.
Bell's Call for papers. The Vilnius-based Eastern Europe Studies Centre after releases the electronic newsletter “Bell”. “Bell” is a monthly electronic analytical publication comprising articles written by Belarusian researchers and journalists. Next “Bell” issue “Russia's mounting influence in Belarus” is expected to be published in the middle of April.
MediaBarCamp 2013: Survive in the Web. On 9-12 May, in Lithuania, the 6th International MediaBarCamp, dedicated to the use of new opportunities of online media and the development of media activism, will be held. The participants – media, CSOs, political organisations – will have an opportunity to present their online projects at special presentations and in working groups. The organiser of MediaBarCamp 2013 is the Swedish International Liberal Centre (SILC).
Shengenka in Minsk. On 12 March, Festival of Central European literature Shengenka opened at the Minsk Gallery Ў. The Festival consists of five events and aims to introduce the works of well-known Czech, Slovak, Hungarian, Polish writers, philosophers and political scientists translated into Belarusian. The project initiator is Laboratory of Science and Art of Translation, its co-organizers are the campaign Budzma Belarusians! and the Association of Belarusian Writers.
The latest book by Joanne Ivy Stankievich recently came out with Outskirts Press. “Living with a Scent of Danger, European Adventures at the Fall of Communism” is about the 13 years the author and her husband spent in Europe: 1988-2001, when he worked for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. They interfaced with KGB and Foreign Ministers and participated in the transition from Communism to, mostly free, societies in Eastern Europe.
34 sights of Belarus. Online magazine 34mag.net prepared a subjective guide titled 34 sights of Belarus, a concise guide to places for Belarusian and foreign visitors. The guide contains a map and a witty description of the proposed architectural monuments.
Gomel tries to preserve wooden buildings. Gomel CSOs, which work to preserve local historical wooden buildings, plan to hold informal public hearings and develop consolidated actions. The hearings are to be held with the support of Gomel Democratic Forum. Earlier, on 13 March, Gomel activists with the police's assistance managed to prevent the destruction of a monument of wooden architecture. Youth CSO Talaka also appealed to the city authorities to take one of the buildings on the organisation's balance to make there a museum and a youth cultural centre.
Belarusian Week in Vilnius. On 25-30 March, the Belarusian Week will take place in Vilnius. The program of the Week includes various events such as conference, festival of short films, music festival, which are going to begin with the solemn celebration of Freedom Day on 25 March. The Organising Committee invites all Belarusians in Vilnius and Belarusian guests of the Lithuanian capital to join the celebration of the Freedom Day.
Belarusians collect money to save old Belarusian films. A campaign on the Internet has begun raising money to save old movies shot by Belarusfilm. Since the cost of restoration and digitisation of the films are not provided for in the state budget, Belarusians themselves decided to save them for their own money.
Trainings and Seminars
Raising the expertise of young researchers in Belarus. The Eastern Europe Studies Centre (EESC) together with BISS launches an opportunity for the Belarusian beginner researchers in social sciences to further develop their expertise and analytical skills. Within the framework of the programme "Raising the Expertise of Grassroots Level Researchers in Belarus” and in collaboration with the Belarus Research Council, new Belarusian researchers will be provided with training and a scholarship to spend time at a leading European think-tank.
New consultants. Clearing House Project recruited a new set of consultants who will provide free services to Belarusian CSO on developing project proposals for competitions held by the European Commission and other programs. Five new consultants will take part in a series of informational meetings and workshops that will soon take place in different Belarusian cities.
Seminar on quality assurance in higher education. On 26 March, in Minsk, the Office for a Democratic Belarus (Brussels, Belgium) together with the Office for European Expertise and Communication (Minsk, Belarus) will organise a seminar on quality assurance in higher education. The seminar will be conducted in the frames of "EU and Belarus: Sharing Knowledge programme". The organisers encourage participation of representatives of the Ministry of Education, researchers, academics from Minsk and regional universities of Belarus.
Conference on elderly education and socialisation is coming. Over a hundred people applied to the International conference, to be held on 29-30 March in Grodno and dedicated to the socialisation and intellectual, physical and social revitalization of elderly. Actual challenges and best practises will be discussed by representatives of the nonprofit, state and educational organisations from Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and Russia. The conference is organised by the Third Sector Centre in cooperation with the registered association DVV International.
Interaction between the State and Civil Society
Authorities are asking for help from business. On 13 March, at a meeting of the Assembly of business circles, The government of Belarus and business once again tried to establish a dialogue. Economy Minister, Nikolai Snopkov urged entrepreneurs to strengthen partnerships with the state. Business said they are not against cooperation, but are waiting on the authorities to improve the business environment.
Constitutional Court online. On 15 March, Belarus Constitution Day, a state-run news agency Belta conducted an online conference with the Chairperson of the Constitutional Court, Piotr Miklashevich. All internet users had an opportunity to ask questions in this open discussion.
ARCHE gets third registration denial. As reported by the acting editor-in-chief of the magazine, Ales Pashkevich. According to him, the reason for the registration denial appears to be wire-drawn.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.
Why EU Assistance Remains a Low Priority for Belarus Authorities
Despite European protests against human rights violations, the European Union continues to render technical assistance to Belarus. In 2012-2013, Belarus can get more than € 55m in the framework of the European Neighbourhood and Partnership Instrument and the Eastern Partnership.
For Belarus, the EU is the largest potential development cooperation donor. Overall, since 1991 the EU has provided to Belarus with over €510m worth of aid. Belarus is far from being the North Korea of Europe: the European Union has a real means of exerting influence, primarily through its technical assistance.
Still, the Belarusian top officials consciously limit the technical assistance as they consider it dangerous for the integrity of the existing political regime. Moreover, Russia is happy to provide much more aid to the regime for its geopolitical loyalty.
The major part of the EU aid goes to projects of modernisation of the Belarusian border infrastructure, energy sector, economic changes or development of cities. The projects face multiple hurdles: administrative delays, lack of knowledge about getting financial support and reporting. The European Union tends to work through the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to make projects look more acceptable to the Belarusian authorities.
EU Priorities in Belarus
The European Neighbourhood and Partnership Instrument remains the single largest channel for technical aid assistance to Belarus. The National Indicative Programme for 2012-2013 sets two key priorities for the EU’s financial aid. First, good governance and people-to-people contacts. Second, economic modernisation. Belarus is eligible for € 40.5m over two years for these priorities. Moreover, Belarus has access to an additional €15m in the framework of the Eastern Partnership.
Source: Delegation of the European Union to Belarus. Belarus takes part in a number of regional programmes, thus the provided figures may change insignificantly as Belarus' exact share is not always indicated in the regional programmes.
Although it is difficult to describe all the projects in this brief space, their number and variety leaves a strong impression. However, other countries from the region receive much more. For example, Ukraine will get €470m in over a period lasting from 2011 to 2013, and Georgia – €180m. Belarus with its € 40.5m looks quite modest in comparison.
Belarusian authorities understand that the EU is sensitive about its border control. They have accumulated more than € 50m for border management, and are implementing the project for € 19m, with plans to sign agreements for the next € 4.5m tranche in the nearest future.
Significant EU resources also go to the energy sector. Europeans will act as advisors to the Belarusian Ministry of Energy for three years for € 5m. Another project for € 5m will be provided to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection. The State Committee for Standardisation has an agreement for € 12m, aimed at standardisation in the field of energy efficiency and savings.
The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection will get € 12m for green economic development. It looks highly likely that Belarus will get this money due to the desire to set this project as a priority at the Commonwealth of the Independent States, a regional international organisation which facilitates the integration of post-Soviet states.
The European Union also provides money to facilitate the development of Belarusian cities. For instance, a small town in the Vitsebsk region, Navapolatsk, received € 500,000 to develop tourism in the region. Europeans have allocated more than € 13m in total for the regional and local development of Belarus.
Belarus also is a participatant in the project East Invest, aimed at facilitating improving the investment situation as well as support of small and medium businesses.
The Delegation of the EU to Belarus often implements projects together with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which has a better reputation with the Belarusian authorities, than the Commission.
The Commission cooperates with this UN agency for quicker registration and to minimise problems with the Belarusian side. The European Commission and the UNDP has implemented in Belarus 13 projects related to border management, human trafficking, drugs and crime, the environment and sustainable development. Although not without their own difficulties, but these projects do work and are effective.
EU Assistance Viewed with Suspicion
It is hard to tell whether these projects have a significant impact on the situation in Belarus. The EU Delegation to Belarus has never created a public evaluation of its financial aid, and the Belarusian authorities and media keep silent about help from the West. The EU’s technical aid to Belarus seems like a process without long-term or political goals.
Belarusian NGOs experience great difficulties with obtaining EU aid legally. First, the authorities deny a significant number of NGOs official registration. Second, the NGOs are obliged to register any approved project which relies on foreign aid, even if they have registration. The authorities, in turn, are often not very willing to register such projects. The state monopoly for the technical aid has lead to a deterioration of the quality of the fulfilled projects.
Somewhat paradoxically, Belarusian authorities seem reluctant to sign agreements on technical aid. A great number of projects get delayed or suspended for a certain period of time. According to Alexei Pikulik and Alena Artsiomenka of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, in 2012 Belarus started up several projects approved back in 2007. It usually takes two years from the identification of a project to the actual signing of a contract. As a result, the money arrives when the situation is different and there is a need to adjust the old priorities to the new situation.
The low quality of Belarus' public administration remains a serious problem. The National Coordination Unit was set up in Belarus and its role is to closely work with the EU Delegation to provide guidance and counsel to any potential project partners and beneficiaries.
The author made several phone calls and sent several letters to the National Coordination Unit to find out their point of view on the Belarusian-European cooperation. The National Coordination Unit did not respond to e-mails, and their executive director explained over the phone that technical assistance was a very broad issue to have a conversation and he refrained from sharing his opinion on how to improve its quality in Belarus.
Why It's Still Worth Doing
Financial aid and cooperation facilitate the popularisation of the European development model in Belarus, modernisation of the Belarusian economy, improvement of the border management and other areas as well. However, according to Vladimir Putin, Belarus gets about four billion dollars per year from Russia in the form of discounts on oil and natural gas. These billions remain a priority for the Belarusian authorities. If anyone thinks that the € 510m technical aid package may seriously democratise the regime, this is rather far from truth.
Nonetheless, even if the authorities view EU technical assistance with suspicion and its sums remain very modest, this assistance remains very important for Belarusians. This is a signal of the EU’s readiness to help Belarus not just by declarations and symbolic gestures, but also by concrete actions.